The digital and the democracy

By Heather Jameson | 23 February 2022

Worthing Town Hall is, it is fair to say, a bit of a building site. First opened in the 1930s, it still maintains its art deco grandeur but it is currently in mid-renovation to make it fit for the future.

It could easily be a metaphor for local government. Built on a proud history, with good foundations, there needs to be some uncomfortable disruption to build the local councils of the future.

Dr Catherine Howe, chief executive of Worthing and its co-council Adur, suggests she has a ‘chequered past’. The country’s first chief executive with a truly digital background, she started off in technology well before digital transformation became a thing in local government. From start-ups to consultancy giant Capita, she has held a number of posts in the commercial world.

Then the flip side of her life has been a ‘democratic fascination’, and trying to work out how technology can aid democracy. It was her PhD research, her interest and her career all rolled into one, which ‘all came together’ when she worked on digital transformation at Cancer Research, prior to joining Adur and Worthing in a director of communities’ role.

‘I thought, this is a thing I would love to do because it knits together the various different bits and pieces that I’ve done, working with the bit of public service I think is most relevant to people,’ she says.

It was a broad role, covering wellbeing and public health, community safety and anti-social behaviour, democratic services and community engagement, right down to housing, waste and cleansing.

‘I had a lovely mix of commercial operational stuff…and the wellbeing space,’ she says. As well as ‘the opportunity to say “how would we do this with our communities” rather than to them. That’s a real privilege, to be honest.’

When the previous chief, Alex Bailey, retired, Catherine was installed as interim chief before finally landing the job permanently last autumn.

She is, she explains, caught between three horizons, much like the building work. She describes horizon one as the current system of local government, in decline but still going on. Horizon two is the ‘experimental mess’ while organisations try new things. Horizon three is the new system that emerges.

‘The trouble with this is, we need horizon one to continue to work, and it needs to be as effective as possible,’ she says ‘while we rethink the way this stuff works for a net zero economy.’ Catherine is very much a horizon three person – and her tech background has taught her that, if you spend too much time getting there, there is a risk you are out of date before you have even begun.

Her ambition for the two councils combines the dual aspects of her career – the digital and the democracy.

‘I would like us to be better at showing up in place. It’s very easy to get caught up in the big stuff and not be present and show that you love the community.’

Things like a coat of paint, or making a local park just a bit better, all the ‘small stuff’ things that give communities the impression you care and the confidence you will be able to do the more important things too.

‘I also have an ambition that we are really deeply co-producing with our communities, because the “democracy me” thinks it’s right we are empowering communities,’ she says: ‘But also because public services will never, ever be able to answer all the demand.’

And because, she suggests, you can’t be participatory externally and not change the way you operate internally, she is looking at how to make people feel they have a voice when it comes to the internal strategy.

Then it is back to her tech side, working on how to make the best out of technology to deliver services. ‘We’re experimenting with how to rewire some of the ways you approach a project which reflect an agile or iterative style of working.’

It is at the early stages, with a lot of the building work to be done.

There are, she says, some things that alarmed her about stepping into the role. There is the ‘incoherence of the machine around you while you are trying to make it all make sense’, with a policy maze coming from central government.

She claims: ‘We’ve sacrificed our resilience to the altar of efficiency’. While local government may have built more efficient systems, they are not always flexible. ‘And we really do need a deep and careful thought about skills in the sector.

‘We are all struggling, and I haven’t yet found the places where we are helping each other, and that is a worry.’

‘I am holding the organisation in a lot of uncertainty,’ she admits, as she works out the right organisational design and strategy, bringing partners and the community along too. But like the pain of the building work, it needs to be done to be fit for the future.

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